More on Fear and Writing, part I: Confessions of an Idle Writer


All right confession time.

I haven’t written a book in a really, really long time.

Let me give you some background.  Last year I had no new books under contract.  Thieftaker was written and in production.  I had, at the very end of 2010, turned in the second Thieftaker book, Thieves’ Quarry. It was with my editor and awaiting his editorial comments (although I knew that it wouldn’t be edited for some time, given that Thieftaker was still more than a year from publication).  And I had sitting on my hard drive, a couple of other projects that needed my attention at some point.

I spent 2011 a) creating a web presence for D. B. Jackson; b) revising Thieftaker 2 on my own and submitting that second version to my editor; c) finishing and revising a middle grade book that still needs another set of rewrites; d) writing Thieftaker short stories; and e) writing a new contemporary urban fantasy from start to finish.  This year, in addition to promoting Thieftaker with the blog tour and book tour (which took up A LOT of my time), I have a) written more Thieftaker short stories; b) revised an old urban fantasy that is finally ready to be shopped around to publishers (Lucienne is shopping it now); c) revised that urban fantasy I wrote last year; and d) finally responded to my editor’s notes on Thieves’ Quarry.  (Actually, I’m still working on this last item.)

But the last new book I finished was that contemporary UF I wrote last summer.  I haven’t written a book since.  I haven’t even started one.

And I admit that I’m a bit concerned about this.  

It’s not that I’ve tried to start a book and failed.  I haven’t.  It’s not that I have no ideas for new books.  I have plenty.  In fact, Lucienne and I have pitched two new Thieftaker books and hope to sell them to Tor very soon.  And that older urban fantasy we’re shopping now comes with a proposal for two more books.  With any luck at all, by the end of the calendar year, I’ll have five books under contract, four of which I will have to start working on pretty soon.

Rather, it’s that I feel out of practice.  I worry that I’ve forgotten how to do this.  For the first time in a long time, I find myself intimidated by the prospect of taking on a new book-length project.  It’s like I’ve neglected a workout regimen for too long and now feel so out of shape that I’m afraid to go back to the gym.

I know that I haven’t forgotten how to write.  I think that once I get involved in whatever book I choose to write next, I’ll discover that all the revising and rewriting I’ve done in the past year has actually improved my craft.  My fears are rooted more in process, in getting my daily word counts back up to where they need to be, in tackling the plotting and organization of a new narrative.

I share this because I think it’s sometimes valuable for aspiring writers to hear that their fears and worries are not all that different from those of the professionals whose books line the shelves of their favorite bookstores.  The fact is, every professional I know grapples with an array of fears and concerns.  Will my books sell?  Will I find a publisher for my new project?  Is my work in progress as bad as it seems to be, or will it turn out okay?  What if this is the story idea that doesn’t pan out, that stalls and never gets started again?  What if I’ve lost it?  What if, what if, what if . . . ?

These are not the fun “What ifs?” that fuel our creativity.  These are the evil ones that paralyze us during the day when we ought to be working, and keep us lying awake at night.  We’ve discussed “fear” a lot in recent months here at MW, and this, I suppose is one more installment in that collection of posts.  Writing fears come in all shapes and sizes, they assail us from all angles, and they don’t care how experienced we are, or how well-known, or how “successful.”

How am I going to deal with my fear this time around?  Same way I always do, I suppose.  I don’t know when I’ll start a new book, or which of my planned books that first new one will be.  A lot depends upon how the business side of this shakes out, and which contract comes through first.  But at some point in the next couple of months, I am going to put my B in the C and I’m going to start outlining.  I will come up with plot points, I’ll develop new characters and take stock of recurring ones.  And then I will write.  It’ll go slowly at first; it always does.  Those first couple of chapters will be agonizing.  I might even write a post or two about how much my new book sucks and how slowly the progress is coming. But it will get better as I go along.  It always does.

Because while this fear is sort of a new one for me, fear itself is an old adversary — sort of the Sephira Pryce to my Ethan Kaille.  I know her tactics; she knows my weaknesses.  In the end, though, this is my story.  I control the outcome.  I am going to write my next book — whatever it is — and it is going to be good.  I am the hero of this little drama, and ultimately the hero always prevails.

So now it’s your turn.  You probably have writing fears with which you’re grappling.  Want to tell us about them?  Care to share your strategies for overcoming them?

David B. Coe

24 comments to More on Fear and Writing, part I: Confessions of an Idle Writer

  • Oddly, I don’t have quite as many writing fears right now as I have music fears. I guess I do worry that with the music focus I won’t have as much time to write the novels. And if it does by some chance take off, I may not have time to go hunting for publication or hitting deadlines while I’m working with the music. Then again, people hold down full time jobs and still manage to do it, so it may not be as big a deal as I think. So far, I’ve written the lyrics of 9 songs based on short story synopses that I wrote up, and one short story based on one of the synopses. It’s sort of a marketing strategy I came up with and I’m finding it a blast working to distill the essence of a story into song lyrics. Still, I’ve barely touched the latest novel WIP. I may take a break from the song work and focus on the novel a bit this week instead. My voice still needs some recovery anyway after a nasty sinus infection. My biggest fear right now is that my voice won’t go back to the way it was before the infection. I may have to just embrace the scratchiness or change how I sing. I may have to drop pitch a bit, which is a style I don’t quite like as much in the genre. I guess for the nonce, my bardic focus has switched from storyteller to balladeer. 😉

  • I feel for you. I haven’t written new words in months–I’ve done rewrites (and rewrites of rewrites), but nothing new. And my new UF is banging in my head like a drum–I have ideas and I want to write them down. The problem for me, though, is time. I’m swamped under “have to do” and can’t get to “get to do…” right now. Maybe this week, but probably not. My “writing day” is going to be for writing a conference paper that I have to give in a few weeks. It’s writing. It’s interesting (to me and maybe 50 other people in the world, if I’m generous), but it’s academic, not ficiton. I knew this time would be chaos, but my little fantasy about having enough time went out the window about three days ago. (I can hold on to fantasies for quite a while). Plus, things I thought would be quick are NOT at all. They’re sucking time away in ways that are making me crazy.

    And good luck with all the stuff under consideration!

  • Julia

    David, I’m terribly relieved to hear that your first few chapters always come slow. I’ve been working on a new book — and even though I’m excited about the book and deeply committed to it, I am writing slowly. Sometimes, it’s even painstaking. I like what I have. It feels strong and bright and good. I’m just used to having the words roll out fast and easy.

    Part of the pace comes from the rest of life: I’m an academic, so the teaching and research and scholarly writing projects call forth a lot of my creative entergies. But it’s not really that things are busy — it’s that getting to know the world and deepening into my characters is taking time. Last time I started a book, words fell onto the page in a wild blaze. (Most of them were the wrong words, but still.) This time, it’s a very different feel.

  • Ken

    Right now I’m in an interesting place. My writing time is so limited that, when I’m doing it, I’m not aware of those big picture worries. I’m there, BIC, and I’m slowly chipping away at it. It’s like that old saying: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. I’m down there in the details and too focused on the individual bites to step back and say, “Holy crap, I’m eating a frigging elephant!”

    Later on, during the rest of the day, if worries about whether or not my story is any good, etc, rise up, they get watered down and washed away under the pressures of the day job. On the other hand, during the day, ideas have time to cook (Ferment?) in my subconsious while I’m there, so it’s something of a Win-Win albeit one under a lot of pressure. I’m not going to say that it’s my preferred way of writing, but you take what you can get and make the best of it.

  • Like Pea, I’ve mostly been revising. To the point where I’m cursing and muttering that revisions should be a four-letter-word. Until last month when I put my foot down and dove into the UF that has been bugging me for ages. But silly me, I took off at a sprint, and then I hit some obstacles and work ground to a halt.

    How do I deal with it? Well, I realized that while I have the bare bones of an outline, it wasn’t enough. So I’m making a proper one now before moving forward. Also, one thing that really helps is talking it out – with my husband, with myself in a new document, in my writing notebook if I’m away from my computer. It’s *very* useful.

    Another things that I find that helps: I don’t want to get into the argument about whether or not listening to music while working is a good or bad thing, but I’ve been doing it as a means of minimizing distraction for so long, that it might be a matter of habit. I do this in my NaNo group, at home, on transit. I have giant headphones to shut the rest of the world. It works for me. To the point of when I don’t do it, I have a harder time getting to work.

    I don’t know if this helps, but I had a personal realization a few weeks ago that I’m determined to see through: “The only thing keeping me from this is me.” I meant it more in regards to going to the gym, but I’m beginning to realize that I should also apply it to writing.

    But I still get scared. I get distracted. I worry that I’m not producing fast enough. I let myself slack and end up watching the Emmys when I planned to be reading, or maybe working on my outline. I’m trying to work on that “worry rat” we all talked about on Friday, but that itself is a work in progress.

    Dangit, sorry for yet another essay-long comment!

  • Daniel, I think it’s very cool that you’re working on lyrics. Not that I don’t think you should get back to the books eventually, but what you’re doing sounds amazingly fun — inspiring, even, for a musician like me. I hope you enjoy great success with this new phase in your writing life.

    Emily, right — I totally understand. Rewrites have dominated my writing life for the last year, and that’s okay. I’ve done very good work on several books, and as a result, all of them are stronger than they were before. But between the revisions and life and promotional stuff, there is just no time for anything else. Best of luck to you with the academic work.

    Julia, my first chapters almost always come slowly. By the time I am 100 pages into a book, I’m writing at a pretty good clip — 2000-2500 words per day. But the first two or three chapters can take me weeks to write. As I’ve said here before, writing for me is an exercise in inertia. Starting things in motion takes a great deal of energy, but once I’m moving, it becomes much easier.

    Ken, it sounds like you have a great attitude about how you approach your writing time and your day-job time. And I think you have the right approach in dealing with the elephant. If I think “I’m about to start a 100,000 word novel,” I will never get anything done. If, on the other hand, I think “I’m about to start a 2,000 word chapter, and then I’ll write another chapter, and so on,” I find that the process is far easier.

    Laura, sorry to hear that you’ve stalled a bit on the new UF. As one who works with music on, I have no trouble believing that those headphones help. Whatever works for you — that’s really the key. And yes, I have had that same conversation with myself quite often. If I am not getting the work done, that’s my fault. If I’m scared about starting a new book, that’s because of my own sense of intimidation. The key to my own success lies within. But keep in mind that the opposite is true to. When you succeed, you have to be willing to congratulate yourself for a job well done. Give yourself the credit. Best of luck.

  • Ugg. Ugg, ugg, ugg.
    Current fear? Will I finally get this book done?!? EVER?

    I spent all last week revising. I have most of the plot lines in place now. And I spent 2 hours on 5 paragraphs last night to bring the reader back to setting and major plot points. Those 5 paras also did the big reveal or the big deduction for my MC, so that she *can* solve the plot conflict.

    Today, I start in on the ending. I usually love endings. But this one has been difficult due to multiple family illnesses and 2 deadline extensions. So. This week I *must* write the three final scenes.

    As to the fear about the next book? (hides head in sand) I’ll think about that tomorrow.

  • I can relate, David. I had the exact same fear before writing Darwen I and am already dreading what happens when I’m done with the edits for Darwen III. I keep wanting to go back to old manuscripts and fiddle rather than starting something new but I know that’s a non-starter. The fear of the blank page. Gets me every time…

  • sagablessed

    I am working on a new WIP, but my fear is a little different. When I get critiqued by my group, I get gripped by uncertainty and try to make EVERY revision. I have learned now not to read the critiques until the work is done, then just look for the common thread. I must please myself. Then see what others say.
    I have been sick this last week, and I did not write, so my fear is I am too far behind to make it up. Stupid, as I have no contract or deadline, but the fear is there.
    Time to go back to bed.

  • Your timing for this post could not have been better! I haven’t written new words in over six months, and I’m gearing up to start a new novel on October 1. I’m somewhat amazed at how scary the process is! (How many novels in is this?!?) For now, though, I have one more week of comfort-editing on an existing project 🙂

  • Fight fear with fear – the fear of failing with the fear of failing. “What if my book is a flop?” is scary, but right now it’s worse than “what if I never finish it and find out?” It would be like living with a ghost for the rest of my life. I went zip lining over the weekend. As I slid off the edge of the 50 foot tower, gripping the harness rope for dear life, all I could think about was my unfinished work. Really and truly – the fear uppermost in my mind was that I was going to fall, be paralyzed, and NEVER FINISH. So, I suppose, that’s what keeps me writing. I’m too far in to give up now.

  • Faith, sorry to hear that it’s been such a struggle. I have no doubt that this book will be brilliant when it’s done, but I certainly understand how harrowing the struggle to finish and get it right can be.

    A.J., thanks. I think the uncertainty is adding to my trepidation. If I knew what I was going to be writing next, I might have an easier time imagining myself writing it!

    Donald, I hope you feel better soon. That fear of falling behind means that you’ve internalized your commitment to writing every day. That’s a good thing. Don’t beat yourself up about it, but recognize that you’ve come to expect yourself to be a writer on a regular basis. That’s very cool. As for the crit group, yes, you have to please yourself with what you’ve written. That is the most important thing.

    Mindy, I don’t have a start date yet, but otherwise it sounds as though we’re in very similar places. Nice to know I’m not alone. Good luck with the new project!

    Sarah, what an amazing story (and by the way, I went zip lining for the first time last November (in the Costa Rican Cloud Forest). What a hoot! I loved it. Anyway, it seems to me that not finishing is no longer something you have to worry about. Talk about ingrained!

  • My biggest fear tends to alternate between “what if this is really a stupid idea and I’m not a good enough writer to pull it off even if it turns out to be a good idea” and “what if I screw around and never get this book written.” I’m trying to focus on the second one since that’s the one I have control over. I can finish this book. That’s all I’m trying to do right now. I keep telling myself I can worry about how good it is or isn’t once it’s finished. Sometimes I even listen!

  • Razziecat

    David, give yourself a break…you’ve gotten a hell of a lot done even if it didn’t include writing a whole new book! I wish I had accomplished even half as much. My WIP came to a grinding halt because I became aware of several major flaws, and I’m having a very difficult time figuring out what to fix first. I should probably just finish it based on my outline, so I can at least say I wrote it through to the end (and I do have an ending). But I keep bumping into those flaws, and I keep asking myself if it’s worth putting so much time and effort into something that needs major reconstruction. I’ve been doing a lot of little backstory stuff, trying to get a better handle on the characters. I have a feeling that the only way to finish the main story is just to bull my way through, making allowances for the flaws as I go, and then (after a little time) go through it and see if it’s worth a major revise; then again, maybe I should instead focus on those backstories and turn them into something bigger. I’m very conflicted 🙁

  • SiSi, that really is the attitude one has to take. When I’m writing a book, I have a sense that the idea is a good one. The fact that it can sustain an entire book gives me some indication of its quality. But to a certain degree, writing an entire book is a leap of faith. “I can worry about how good it is or isn’t once it’s finished.” Yes, this. Exactly this.

    Razz, thanks. I’m really not beating myself up over the fact that I haven’t written a book in a while. It may have come across that way, but the fact is, I’ve done a lot of other things and accomplished a good number of the goals I set for myself. I just am now feeling a bit frightened at the prospect of writing something again. It’ll pass. As for your work in progress, obviously you are the only one who can say if it’s worth pushing through and finishing the book. But I would allow for the following possibilities: It may be that once the book is done, you’ll find that those flaws aren’t as big as you think. It may be that they’re just as big as you think but that upon completing the book the fixes for those flaws will become clear and will seem less daunting than they do now. I am usually a proponent of bulling ahead, if for no other reason than because I know how much I will regret not finishing a project. Finish it and the worst that happens is you can say “I finished my book. It’s not quite what I wanted it to be, but at least I finished.” Choose not to finish, and you might look back at some point and wonder why you didn’t force yourself to keep writing. My $.02. Feel free to tell me to mind my own damn business. Best of luck, whatever you decide to do.

  • Ooh, SiSi, I totally relate to that one. It’s like trying to grocery shop on an empty stomach and then getting home a ton of food with little memory of what you planned for all of it and trying to pull together a dinner for your boss. Nerve wracking.

    My big fear right now is time. I have so many things going on that (unfortunately, but for the sake of all humanity) writing gets shunted aside for sleep. I keep looking at my WIP and wanting to work on it, but the pressing deadlines of everything else (work, school) are more demanding. I’m worried about running out of time, or spending so much time with these other obligations that the story will be dead when I do return to it. With as many distractions as I have right now, 15 minutes writing gets me nowhere fast – except convinced of my own inadequacies.

  • quillet

    Thank you, David. It’s so reassuring to know that other writers, including an established author like yourself, share the same fears as us unpublished ones. I myself had a long drought last year, partly because I was stuck in my WiP and partly because the ol’ day job was demanding more time and I always felt too tired to tackle the problems in my story. After a while I began, like you, to worry I’d forgotten *how* to write. What finally got me going again was learning how to be both tougher and kinder to myself. Tougher meant no more whining about being tired, just get B in C and write. Kinder meant patting myself on the back for writing a little instead of punishing myself for not writing more, and also shutting up my internal-editor-voice and allowing myself to write whatever words came. This sounds utterly nuts, but I sometimes imagined tying “her” up in a chair and duct-taping her mouth shut, with threats of violence if I heard one “this is crap” comment out of her. I gladly invite her back into my head while editing, but I don’t want to hear from her while writing draft!

    I still have bleak days, or tired days, or too-busy days, or too-distracted days…ugh…but I’m happy to say I figured out what was wrong with my story, and now it’s rolling again. Take that, fear! (And THAT, internal-editor-voice!)

  • Razziecat

    David, I appreciate everything you said. Good points, all. I guess I’m just letting the doubts slow me down. I need to remember that the more I write, the more the ideas flow, and sometimes very unexpected things happen. Just have to keep priming the pump and working at it! Thanks!

  • Hepseba ALHH

    I think my biggest fears with writing center around being too scattered. Every *type* of project I like to work on seems like it has 50 different projects waiting out in dream-space praying that I have time to get to them, whether it’s writing or sewing or beading or gardening or even programming. I know that some advice is just to say “you have to pick your priorities” and just drop the *type* of stuff that’s not at the top. For myself, though, I think I need to try to find a balance between doing many types of things and still committing to work consistently on my writing. I started my WIP six years ago working stop-start. It’s to the point now that focus and committing to a few good edit passes could actually turn it into a decent book; I just need to focus. But then the fear after that is what to work on next. My WIP is, unfortunately, not a stand-alone, but I’ve also already got a chapter-and-a-bit on the next story I want to work on, plus everything else, and I don’t want any of it to disappear into the nether regions of never-got-around-to-it.

  • Theresa, that’s totally understandable, but I really don’t think that your story is going to die on you. If the story is worth writing — and I have no doubt that it is — it will still be there waiting when you’re ready to get back to it. At least, that’s been my experience. I hope that the time pressures ease up soon.

    Quillet, you’re welcome. Thanks for the comment. Good for you. I’m a big advocate for learning how to edit one’s own work. But yes, you also have to be able to turn off the critic now and then, and just write. Sounds like you’re on a good path right now. Hope that continues.

    Razz, thanks. Glad you found something helpful in what I wrote.

    Hep, I think if the writing is a priority for you you’ll get it done. And it sounds as though it is a priority. I also think that once you have finished and polished the first book, you’ll have the confidence and the experience to help you get through the subsequent volumes more quickly. Keep at it, and best of luck.

  • My biggest fear is actually finishing my WIP. I stall saying that it’s just that I don’t have any ideas; I don’t know where to go from this point but in truth I’m 75% done with the first draft and I’m scared it’ll suck bannana balls.

  • I worry that I haven’t got a complete novel in my bones. I also worry that if I do write a good novel which gets picked up for publication, I won’t be able to write “on demand.”

    I really don’t know a cure for these fears other than simply BIC and write. See what happens.

  • Vhaudikas

    Last year I started and finished writing the first novel I had written in 10 years. It was more of a test for myself to find out if I still loved writing. I found out I loved it more than ever, I loved the whole process from first words to the final period. My fear was that I wouldn’t love it any more. After such a long time between novels I was shocked how much I missed the writing, how much I needed to write. From the last novel I wrote 10 years ago to the one I finished writing last year I had written hundreds of poems, some short stories, painted paintings, had an art show, and even got back together with an old friend and played keyboards in his band. It has always been the novel that has held my passion though. A strange fear for me to have is just actually starting the new novel. Sure I loved writing the last one, but maybe it was just nostalgia, maybe because it was just writing for myself, an enjoyable exercise – this time it’s for real. I know once I start I’ll love the writing to the end. The first words are always the hardest.

  • Wait, you’ll never know if you don’t finish, and once you are finished, polishing a completed manuscript is much, much easier than trying to correct problems in an incomplete one. Seriously, I can’t say it too strongly. Finish the book. You’ll be glad you did.

    Mark, you and I have been corresponding with each other for a long time now. You do have a finished novel in you. I’m sure of it. As for writing on demand, that’s one of those things you’ll figure out when the time comes. As you say, the only cure is to write and make it happen. Keep at it, my friend.

    Vhaudikas, what a great comment. That is very cool. I think that once we start writing, there is really no other outlet like it for creativity, emotion, expression. So glad that coming back to it was such a positive experience for you. Thanks for joining the discussion.